Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Berlinsterdam... part 1

As the days grew short and the light grew dim on 2014, it was time for Mrs Cake and I to make one last booze tourism adventure – or “holiday” as most people call them. This time it would be a combination of stays in Amsterdam and Berlin – Amsterdam because Mrs Cake’s father and wife (there’s no un-clumsy way of describing that particular relationship) were rounding off a European river cruise and wanted to meet us there, and Berlin because I had promised to take Mrs Cake many months earlier in the year. I wasn’t that fussed about the Dam, having been there twice already, but that’s fine; it actually turns out to be cheaper to fly from Manchester to Amsterdam, from Amsterdam to Berlin, and finally from Berlin back to Manchester than it is to just fly from Manchester to Berlin and back again. And you get to take in three separate Duty Free opportunities that way… but more on that later.

As ever, I made use of a little idle time in advance and determined there were some interesting things I could look out for in these destinations – jenever in Amsterdam and absinthe and brandy in Germany.

Just to keep this focused on booze, as it should be, I’m not going to start at the beginning and take you through the whole holiday. Instead I’ve decided to split it into 3 sections - beer, spirits and duty free. Let’s get started.

Stories of Beer and Various Bars

I tried a lot of beer on this holiday – 27 distinct ones in a week in fact, which exceeded my monthly average at that point by 10 and (combined with the Salford Independent Beer Festival that I attended, and started but didn’t finish writing about) brings that average up to 20. I considered writing a song, from the names of the various beers, based on Johnny Cash’s I’ve Been Everywhere… but I simply don’t have the time or talent to shoehorn a plethora of dutch and german words I can’t even pronounce into the song structure. I’m also bored with the prospect of going into detail in regard to all the various beers we were able to partake of. Instead, I think we’ll go with some general observations and comments.


The stay in Amsterdam was more of a sedate affair than Berlin was destined to be, and than it had been on my previous two visits when I was more than 10 years younger  – mostly because we were there with parental figures and while alcohol was very much on our collective menus, getting smashed was not.

 So of course Grolsch and Amstel were part of the experience, but not Heineken. Mrs Cake had suggested the Heineken brewery as a possible destination while we were there, but the thought of it bored the shit out of me. I think what sealed that was that the website described it as a brewery tour followed by the chance to have “a beer” in the bar. A fucking Heineken in a bar. Careful you don’t explode with excitement at the prospect of that.

Fair enough, the tour might be good, it might be worthwhile, but whatever. If you’re going to entice me to a brewery tour, you’re going to have to promise a tasting of several samples with a few free bottles to take home. Otherwise I’m not going.

There are of course more interesting beers available in Holland; wheat beers, bocks, various types of beer from all over Europe – including a Fuller’s Chiswick, which I  swear said in excess of 5% on the label, but only around 3-4% on Untappd. We even stumbled across de Bekeerde Suster, which is a brewery and a bar, where I tried a beer called De Blonde Barbier, though I only scored that one a three out of five.

The highest scoring beers in Amsterdam were Grimbergen Blonde (which is actually Belgian) and Amstel, both of which scored a 3.5. Not astounding scores then, but I’ve come to realise I rarely score more than a 3.5 and the vast majority score 3-3.5. It doesn’t mean I don’t like beer, it just means it’s all all right and not much of it is amazing.

Berlin – What would Pablo and Veronica do?

There was much more beer drinking going on in Berlin, though for some reason we struggled to find bars. We’d been given a list of great places from a friend of mine, but we didn’t manage to find any of them. Elsewhere, nowhere really looked like the kind of place you’d just go into to drink. That may be down to our perceptions, expectations and lack of experience in German things, but rightly or wrongly, it is indicative of what happened. We certainly didn’t find any of those stereotypical beerhalls where buxom wenches with plaits and pigtails serve steins while everyone sways and sings. Maybe we just didn’t know where to find it, but find it we didn’t – that’s more of a Bavarian thing, I’m told.

On the first night in Kreuzberg we found a rock n’ roll bar, which was good, but it had two rooms and both were showing football matches. That, at least, was recognisable to us as a pub.

One night, also in Kreuzberg, we were looking for a particular restaurant when we heard loud punk music coming out of one of the bars. Having previously chided ourselves for not being adventurous enough, we turned around and went in – it’s what Pablo and Veronica would have done. We were greeted by a 6 foot transvestite belting out tunes from just inside the door, and the rest of his ageing band that included a Vic Reeves lookalike on bass. The room was packed and it was jumping with similarly ageing punk rockers. And it was awesome. I couldn’t see the beer taps, but ordered a beer based on the insignia on other peoples branded beer glasses – finally I’ve found a reason for them. We left at the end of the set, satisfied and pleased we’d done something we hadn’t planned in advance. We followed it up with traditional fried chicken, more beer and schnaps at Henne, a restaurant that had been recommended in our guidebook.

cool beer label
The highest scoring beers in Berlin were Schofferhofer Kristallweizen (which I have since seen available in Aldi), Unertl Weissbier, Frankisches Landbier and Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel, all of which managed an impressive 4 out of 5. I’m pretty sure that all of these with the exception of the Unertl were picked up from a supermarket with five other fancy beers for around 10 euros.

It is notable that, while I consider a beer scoring 3 to be decent, anything below that is sub-standard and I did come across a few examples of unpleasant beer – the worst of which was Meckatzer Weiss Gold at a Christmas market. Hofmuhl Hell and Berliner Kindl fared slightly better than that but don’t escape a naming and shaming on these pages.

Generally though, there was a good selection of beers to be had. One thing that did confuse me though, was that every time I ordered a weissbier, the waiter would say, “that’s a white beer”, as if it wasn’t generally considered something I should be ordering, like: “are you sure?” Is there something I should know about weissbier? Well, from Wikipedia, it appears everything is above board. I already knew I liked weissbier anyway.

I think we’ll leave it there for this week. I don’t want you getting put off by the sheer volume of words. Next week I’ll be back to talk about the search for German and Dutch spirits, and it should be quite a bit more interesting than this has been. Join me then.

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